Directed by Ron Howard
Pole position 27 September 2013
“A wise man can learn more from his enemies than a fool from his friends.”
- Niki Lauda in Rush
Ron Howard’s best movies are based on true stories. While A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13 top the list, Howard’s latest, Rush, earns a spot in their ranks.
Eat My Dust
Rush is possibly Howard’s most complicated movie in terms of the intertwining of themes, narrative and action. It’s not a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy kind of intricacy, but it is an emotional and mental ride that’s much different from the typical sports movie. There are no Rocky moments to induce cheering, but there are a few breathless moments as both protagonists, James Simon Wallace Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, Thor) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl, Inglourious Basterds), flirt with death while zipping around Formula 3 and Formula 1 race tracks.
Yes. There are two lead protagonists. Their competitive relationship in racing is akin to that of Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in boxing, but there’s one huge difference: James and Niki really did compete in the 1970s.
Both James and Niki were born into well-to-do families. James is a handsome, frolicsome playboy whose family includes stock brokers, barristers and accountants. Niki is nicknamed “The Rat” for his harsh facial features, but he’s a smart, strategic-thinking young man with considerable ambition. Niki shuns his family’s wealth in order to pursue his dreams of auto racing unfettered by familial demands. At turns, both are sympathetic and both are assholes.
As the characters are introduced, there’s an even keeled pace to the movie, one that tempers the exhilaration of high-speed racing with the ever-present sense that death is only one tiny miscalculation away. After a while, though, the mind begins to question where the story is supposed to be going. As the arc of Hunt and Lauda’s relationship comes into sharper focus, those questions of direction get answered and the second half makes for quite a ride that culminates in a conclusion with an unexpected amount of punch.
Set primarily between 1970 and 1976, Rush boasts a grainy film stock and washed out imagery that suits the period. It’s the kind of packaging that puts a bow and ribbon on a movie that should age well. Rush tells a true story that can haunt the mind after the end credits roll, particularly since the final frames of the narrative feature old footage of the real Hunt and Lauda. It’s striking how similar Hemsworth and Bruhl look to the real-life men; they are indeed cinematic dopplegangers.
Those film clips are the perfect way to end this movie, one which is ultimately about real sportsmanship, something that is at a premium in today’s world of doped up athletes trumpeting how clean they are until – almost inevitably – they’re exposed as nothing more than egotistical cheats.
The relationship between Hunt and Lauda is classic and it is beautifully summarized in that vintage footage. These are two guys who can’t stand each other on the race track. They insult each other, they taunt each other, they push each other’s buttons. But they’re also driven by a healthy dose of respect for each other’s capabilities. While they talk smack, they also egg each other on to drive faster and compete harder.
Who to root for? The question comes up as the pivotal events of the 1976 racing season unfold, but the answer is excellent; both Hunt and Lauda have merits and detractions. And both deserve admiration for how they acknowledge they are flawed human beings with two diametrically opposed views of life.
Hunt is fluid, organic, and a man who makes friends easily but whose personal life lacks the same dedication he puts into racing. Hunt’s perpetual closeness to death makes him feel more alive and pushes him to live each day as if it’s his last. Of course, such a devil-may-care attitude is attractive to the ladies and Hunt is smart enough to appreciate all that entails.
The Car Whisperer
On the other hand, Lauda is much more methodical. There’s a science to racing and he was blessed with a butt that can sense all that’s wrong with a car. While Lauda puts his passion into racing in equal measures as Hunt, his demeanor makes him a much tougher nut to crack. Even his teammates don’t particular like him, but for Lauda it’s a matter of keeping a professional distance at all times in order to get the job done. Then he goes home and proves himself to be a dedicated family man who puts a premium on being able to get back to his wife in one piece rather than challenge Satan to another one-on-one duel in the pit. At one point, Lauda even concedes if he had the money, he’d go do something else with his life. In the mean time, he’s simply driven to prove his father wrong.
This story of two divergent life paths, outlooks, values and lifestyles is a fertile playground for Howard to demonstrate how far he’s come as a director. It’s fun to consider that back in 1977 he made his feature directorial debut with Grand Theft Auto and since then he’s gone on to much bigger and much, much better, including a Best Director Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. On occasion, Howard sugar-coats and waters down some storytelling sensibilities, The Da Vinci Code perhaps being the most egregious example of trying to have it both ways by making a global blockbuster that goes out of its way to appease certain thematic criticisms at the expense of the source material’s pulpy sensibilities.
Here, Howard strikes on truisms that resonate. Yes, enemies can be blessings. And maybe there’s some foreshadowing in how one lives and how one dies, but life is full of highs and lows and pit stops and sometimes things come out of left field that force life into a whole new direction.
As depicted in Rush, Hunt had a fear of death that both compelled him to race and repelled an innate, grounded sensibility. Pre-race tensions could lead him to vomit before stepping into the driver’s seat, but ultimately it wasn’t the race track that was his undoing. Hunt died young, at the age of 45, but he died of a heart attack after putting his racing days behind him.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.